“THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” (1956) Review
It has been a long time since I saw Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie, “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”. A long time. When I was young, my family and I used to watch the film on television, every Easter Sunday. By the time I reached my early to mid-twenties, I stopped watching the movie.
I spent the next decade or two deliberately ignoring “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”. One, I had pretty much burned out on the 1956 film by then. Two, I had very little interest in Biblical films. I still do to a certain extent. And three, my opinion of DeMille’s movie had pretty much sunk over the years. By the time, I reached my thirties, I came to the conclusion that it was an overrated film. So . . . what led me to change my mind for a recent viewing of “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”? To be honest, the recent release Ridley Scott’s Biblical film, “EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS”. Both the 1956 and 2014 movies pretty much told the same story – the exodus of Hebrews from Egypt, under the leadership of Moses. I eventually plan to watch “EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS”. But out of curiosity, I decided to watch “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” first.
Anyone who has seen or heard about “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” knows the story. Pharaoh Rameses I of Egypt orders the death of all firstborn Hebrew males upon hearing a prophecy in which a “Deliverer” will lead Egypt’s Hebrew slaves to freedom. A Hebrew woman named Yochabel saves her infant son by setting him adrift in a basket on the Nile River. The Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah, who recently lost her husband, finds the child and adopts him as her own, despite the protests of her servant Memnet. Prince Moses grows up to be a part of Egypt’s royal family. He becomes a successful general who wins a war against Ethopia and forms an alliance with the country. Moses falls in love with loves Nefretiri, who is the throne princess and must be betrothed to the next Pharaoh. He also becomes in charge of constructing a new city in honor of Pharoah Sethi’s jubilee. But when his rival for the throne and Nefretiri’s hand, Prince Rameses accuses him of being the Hebrew slaves’ “Deliverer” after he institute reforms in regard to the slaves’ treatment. Moses responses by showing the completed city and claiming that he wanted the slaves more productive in order to finish the project. Despite being on top of the world following his construction of the new city, Moses’ privileged world is threatened when Nefretiri learns from a royal slave named Memnet that Moses is the son of a Hebrew slave.
I now realized why I had stopped watching “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” for so many years. I had simply burned out on the film. My refusal to watch the movie for so many years had nothing to do with its quality. I am not saying that “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” is one of the best films ever made. Not by a long shot. “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”, quite deservedly, is known for its over-the-top melodrama, bombastic style and preachiness. But the one thing the movie is known for it is the turgid dialogue that seemed to permeate the film. I cannot help but wonder if the screenwriters had disliked actress Anne Baxter or her character, Nefretiri. After hearing her spout lines like – “You will be king of Egypt and I will be your footstool!” – throughout the entire film, I am beginning to suspect that I may be right. Even the other performers – including Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner, Yvonne DeCarlo, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, Debra Paget, John Derek, Judith Anderson, John Carradine, Martha Scott, Nina Foch and Sir Cedric Hardwicke – spoke their lines with a ponderous style that left me wondering if this movie had been shot at a slower speed. And to think, movie fans had to endure this ponderous style and turgid dialogue for slightly over three-and-a-half hours. Whew!
However, my re-watch of “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” made me appreciate it a lot more. I appreciated the epic feel of DeMille’s movie, as he guided audiences into Moses’ life – from Moses’ birth to his glory years as an Egyptian prince, to his years as an outcast and shepherd and finally to his years as a prophet and conflicts with Rameses – all in great detail and glorious Technicolor. DeMille even took the time to delve into the romance of supporting characters like Joshua and Lilia. There are some epic films that can bore me senseless with a ponderous style and equally ponderous pacing. Yes, the dialogue for “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” can be quite ponderous. But I cannot say the same for DeMille’s pacing. I found his direction well-paced, despite the movie’s 220 minutes running time. One of the aspects of “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” that I found truly impressive was Loyal Griggs’ cinematography for the film. Shot in glorious Technicolor, Griggs’ Oscar nominated photography left me breathless, especially while viewing scenes such as those shown below:
I was also impressed by other technical aspects of the film. That last scene, which featured the parting of the Red Seas, led to an Academy Award for John P. Fulton, who had created the movie’s special effects. That scene hold up pretty damn well after 59 years. “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” earned Oscar nominations for Edith Head’s colorful costume designs, Anne Bauchens’ film editing, Sam Comer and Ray Noyer’s set decorations; and for art directors Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler, and Albert Nozaki.
What can I say about the movie’s performances? Despite the ponderous dialogue, the performances seemed to hold up . . . okay. Charlton Heston earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Moses. Granted, Heston projected a strong presence in his performance. But honestly . . . I would not regard Moses as one of his greatest performances. I merely found it solid. I was a little more impressed by Yul Brenner’s portrayal of Ramses. He won the Best Actor National Board Review Award for his performance. Then again, Ramses proved to be a more complex and ambiguous character than Moses. As much as I liked Brenner’s performance, it did not exactly blow my mind. Anne Baxter, who was already an Oscar winner by the time she did “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”, was saddled with some of the movie’s worst dialogue. And there was nothing she could do to overcome the bad dialogue . . . well, except in two particular scenes. One of those scenes featured Nefretiri’s discovery of Moses’ origin as a Hebrew slave. And the other featured her character’s angry goading of Ramses to take action against the Hebrews, following their son’s death.
I read that Paramount had submitted Yvonne De Carlo, John Derek, and Debra Paget as possible nominees for a supporting Academy Award. All gave pretty good performances; especially Yvonne De Carlo, who portrayed Moses’ wife Sephora, and Debra Paget, who portrayed Lilia, the slave woman who seemed doomed to attract the attention from the wrong kind of men. There were other solid performances from the likes of Judith Anderson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, John Carradine, Martha Scott, Henry Wilcoxon and Woody Strode. But two particular performances really caught my attention. Ironically, they were portrayed by Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson, who portrayed characters that proved to be the bane of Lilia’s life. Both gave interesting performances as two very oily men who use Lilia as their personal bed warmer – Price as the well-born Egyptian architect Baka and Robinson as the ambitious Hebrew overseer Dathan, who later proves to be a thorn in Moses’ side.
“THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” proved to be the last film directed by Cecil B. DeMille to be seen in movie theaters. The last in a career that by 1956, had spanned forty-two years. The director passed away over two years following the movie’s release. Frankly, “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” struck me as a nice high note for DeMille to end his career. Yes, one has to endure the extremely long running time, occasional bouts of over-the-top drama and ponderous dialogue. But the movie’s visual style, first-rate story, excellent direction in the hands of a legend like DeMille and solid performances from a cast led by Charlton Heston; makes this Hollywood classic worth watching over and over again.
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